Columnist Susan Wozniak: Lessons learned at a community college

  • SUSAN WOZNIAK

Published: 2/26/2021 8:58:13 AM

A college friend, who made teaching at a community college her career, is glad to see that our new First Lady will shine a light on the necessary role CCs play. Although my time teaching first remedial writing, then college writing, at a community college was brief, it gifted me with indelible memories.

During my remedial teaching time, I looked up to see one of my students typing at a high rate of speed. The assignment was one of those short drills meant to help them tackle essay exams. He had nothing else open on the computer. I thought this fellow was misplaced. He passed the exam to go on to college English, skipping, one, possibly two remedial classes. I was right and was happy for him.

On the other hand, a non-traditional student who appeared to be in her early 40s, also seemed misplaced. Her choices for in-class writing were unusual. When asked the class to write about someone they admired, she chose the English singer, Ginger Spice. Unfortunately, I had yet to learn that students will open a file on the computers — or their phones — and type what they find, then, without shame, hand it in. I gave her a B+ as a final grade. She, however, did not pass the department exam. Several months later, while searching on line for something else, I saw the celebrity column from which she snatched the piece about Ginger Spice.

In what was my favorite class at the college, I had another misplaced student. His writing always flowed. He was terribly shy and explained to me that he was nervous when he took the placement test. A popular athlete sat behind him. The athlete was handsome and well liked because he was modest about his gifts. However, he struggled academically. After battling the first paragraph of an in-class assignment, he looked up to see that the shy fellow was on his second page. “Professor,” the athlete called out. “How does he do it? I have four lines and he has two pages.”

I had no answer that I could give him in front of his peers. I booked an appointment with him and found him a tutor, then warned his coach about how he was trying his best.

Among the students were three petite and stunning girls who came in together. While teaching remedial classes, I opened the first day of each term with a few questions that anyone with an answer could shout out. When I asked, “What is a sentence,” one of the three answered, “Four words.” She wasn’t being sarcastic. At some point, a teacher had said four words were the minimum needed to form a sentence.

The three girls had a rough start. Their initial work was poor but each had an excellent work ethic. All three earned B’s and passed the next placement exam. I wondered what high school they attended and if they had been in remedial classes, mixed in with students who were behavior problems.

And, finally, from the same group, was a student removed from the class by a police officer. The dean who hired me asked me to come to her office. Was I afraid of the student? “No!” The student was a delightful person who often walked out of the room with me to ask questions about class.

A year later, a computer science major from Puerto Rico with a big personality took my class. A native Spanish speaker, he had trouble with English grammar. He was clearly an intelligent person whose strength was in the field he chose, as well as in his charisma. I don’t know what happened to him, but, my reward came the next semester when an ebullient young woman walked in and said, “Hello, Professor Wozniak! I’m Martiño’s cousin!”

Then there was another student born in Puerto Rico who grew up in an upper middle-class suburb of Boston. In his introductory essay, he wrote that he wanted to live in mountains and moved to Vermont after high school. After two years there, he concluded that the Green Mountains aren’t real mountains. He moved to the Rockies where, for a decade, he made his living as a climbing guide in summer and a ski instructor in winter. He lived alone in a cabin without television and read book after book. Then, he decided his 30-year-old body wasn’t as strong as his teenaged body. It was time for more education. He enrolled in a section of ENG 102 I taught and wrote his research paper on his homeland, Puerto Rico. His academic success seemed incomprehensible to him. It was the breadth and depth of his reading that helped him transition from a man of action to a man of thought.

Community colleges were not well regarded when I was in high school. However, the rising cost of higher education has forced many students to take their requirements at community college. For many of my students, their time at a community college was a time of self-discovery, which is — as those old commercials once said — priceless.

Susan Wozniak can be reached at columnist@gazettenet.com.



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